April 13, 2009
1958: The Giants play the Dodgers in the first major league baseball game on the West Coast
April 15, 1958
Major League Baseball in San Francisco!
Decades of storied rivalry already under their respective belts, these two legendary New York baseball clubs — the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers — were trapped in aging, unsuitable parks. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had been considering a move to Minnesota until Dodger owner Walter O’Malley — whose plans for a new Brooklyn park were being blocked — set his sights on the demographic paradise of Los Angeles.
The National League wouldn’t allow just one team to make such a drastic geographic move, so O’Malley talked Stoneham into taking a look at San Francisco. To the eternal regret and dismay of their New York fans, following the 1957 season, both teams pulled up stakes and headed for the welcoming arms of California.
San Francisco welcomes the Giants
Hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans turned out for the Giants formal introduction to their new city, a Market Street ticker-tape parade. Keys to the city were handed out, Shirley Temple was the official Queen of the parade, and Willie Mays — the New York Giants’ biggest star — rode in the first of a long parade of player-filled convertibles, accepting the adoration of the crowd. The action around that whole first season has been beautifully documented in Steve Bitker’s book “The Original San Francisco Giants“
A new stadium was in the works — the controversial Candlestick Park — but it would be a few years before that windblown soup tureen was ready for action. For now major league baseball would be played in what long-time Giants announcer Russ Hodges called a “beautiful little watch-charm ballpark” — Seals Stadium.
Seals Stadium at the corner of 16th and Bryant was a state-of-the-art ballpark in 1931, but it a little sprucing up to play host to the big leagues. Seating capacity was increased to the tune of 2600 bleacher seats, and — get this — the walls in the outfield were lowered and brought in closer to the plate! The lighting was beefed up, and 3000 parking places were added, mostly across Bryant Street at the famous Hamm’s Brewery.
Standing room only
The year before, Kansas City had been the western-most outpost of major league baseball. On April 15th, 1958, that honour belonged to San Francisco.
The game took place on a warm and breezy afternoon, the freshly painted park heavily swathed in red white and blue bunting. The standing-room-only crowd of 23,449 converged on the stadium by car, bus, trolley and foot.
Box seats sold for $3.50, reserved seats for $2.50, and bleachers went for 90 cents — but scalpers were getting as much as $15 a ticket. Some people took in the action from Franklin Square across 16th Street. Old-time ballplayer Ty Cobb was there, and he remarked that 75,000 would have shown up if they’d just had the room.
“They seem hep about baseball”
It was the most heavily-covered game in big league history, with over a hundred journalists roaming the stands and packed into the newly-constructed press box. Dick Young of the New York Daily News expressed surprise over the behaviour of the San Francisco crowd:
“The general consensus is that the new Giant fans have big-league maturity. They have restrained enthusiasm. They are not the wild, fanatically partisan fans of the Milwaukee breed. They seem hep about baseball. Cheer when a play rates it, and not over a routine catch of a foul pop. And they are fair”.
Well, of course they were. Baseball had come to California with the Gold Rush, and was already well-established by 1888 when the epic poem “Casey at the Bat” was first published in the Examiner. In fact, San Francisco had already hosted a number of pro baseball teams, most notably the San Francisco Seals, established in 1903.
The Seals and other members of the Pacific Coast League played a caliber of baseball that stacked up against anything back east, and San Franciscans had witnessed dozens of future major-leaguers competing at Seals Stadium — the DiMaggio brothers, Frank Crosetti, Babe Pinelli, and the great Lefty O’Doul, to name just a few — but though I’m wearing a Seals cap as I write this, today’s story is about the major leagues.
The first Dodger batter to step to the plate was — ironically — the only San Francisco native on the field, Galileo High graduate Gino Cimoli. Giants’ pitcher Ruben Gomez struck him out swinging, and that proved to be an omen — this game would belong to San Francisco.
The high point of the afternoon, in hindsight, anyway, has to be the home run clouted by rookie outfielder Orlando Cepeda. It was the first base hit for “the Baby Bull,” and the first of the 379 home runs of his career. The Puerto Rico native would go on to become the Rookie of the Year, and a favourite of fans all over Northern California — including my mother!
The starting lineups were loaded with future Hall of Famers: for the Giants, Willie Mays, the greatest all-around player in the history of the game, along with Orlando Cepeda; and for the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Don Drysdale. Even the home-plate umpire Jocko Conlan would end up enshrined in at Cooperstown.
The Dodgers wouldn’t score a single run that day, with Gomez going the distance for a complete game shutout.
Final score, Giants 8, Dodgers nothing.
If you’re interested — and I know at least of couple of you are — you can find the box score right here.
Though the Giants finished third in the National League standings in 1958, the New York rivalry had survived the cross-country trip. The fact that the Giants finished ahead of the Dodgers — and beat them 16 times out of 22 meetings — made the season a success.
After Pee Wee Reese struck out to end the game, many in the crowd headed to baseball-oriented neighborhood saloons — Third Base, Lou’s, or the Double Play. Though Seals Stadium was demolished in October of 1959 — yes, a tragedy — the Double Play Bar & Grill still stands. In fact, it just turned 100 years old this year! With walls lined with baseball memorabilia, including the tip of Seals Stadium’s old flagpole — it’s far and away the best place in town to soak up the atmosphere of baseball from the first half of the 20th century.
Last year a plaque was finally laid in the sidewalk at 16th and Bryant, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of that first major league game right on the spot of the old stadium. Willie Mays was there for the occasion, along with Jim Davenport and Orlando Cepeda. The now-graying Orlando recalled his rookie home run perfectly — pointing to the spot where it landed, he recalled that he hit it at 2:30 in the afternoon, that the sky was overcast, and that the pitch was a 3-1 changeup. It was the biggest thrill of his career.
My biggest thrill would be for the Giants to bring home a World Series title — in their now half-century-plus of San Francisco baseball, it still hasn’t happene … yet.
Keep your fingers crossed.